Is Australian flu really the makings of a pandemic – or is it just a viral news story?

Some are comparing the outbreak to the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic, which was caused by the same flu strain, H3N2.

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Every winter in recent years, from around late October to early March, the NHS has been left creaking under the weight of flu season. But the situation looks set to be even worse this winter, with January bringing reports of a “deadly” flu headed for Britain.

Hitting Australia during their winter last year, the H3N2 flu strain, more commonly known by its apt nickname Australian flu, was responsible for an estimated 300 deaths Down Under - making it the worst in the country had experienced in around two decades. There were over 217,000 confirmed cases of the virus in 2017, more than double Australia's previous record of just over 100,000.

And unfortunately for Brits, the virus is thought to have spread to the UK over our own winter season. Headlines scream warnings of an “Aussie flu outbreak set to get WORSE as super spreader kids go back to school and half aren't vaccinated” (The Sun)or tell us that “The dreaded ‘Aussie flu’ outbreak is ’unpredictable’, expert warns as official figures show cases of the killer virus have soared by 70% in a week” (The Daily Mail).

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, there are reports that the Catholic Church has banned members of the congreation from shaking hands during Mass until the situation improves.

But is it all just fearmongering? 

Well, the Australian flu does exist and some of its symptoms are indeed more extreme than those experienced by sufferers of the regular flu. These can include nausea, headaches, vomiting, chest pains, severe head fevers, and just generally feeling worse than if you had a ’normal flu’.

As a viral disease, influenza is typically more dangerous than the common cold. This is because while your body may learn to fight off one strain of the virus, it can still be completely vulnerable to another strain with worse symptoms.

As such, some are comparing this outbreak to the 1968 Hong Kong flu pandemic, which was caused by the same strain of influenza. However, H3N2 is the same virus underlying the ‘flu’ every year, and as such, is not particularly novel. The reality is, of course, a little bit more muddled. 

Online tool Flu.Survey suggests that there are almost no regions within the UK left untouched by the Australian flu. Over in Ireland, there were around ten deaths attributed to the virus in December.

The number of flu-related admissions to hospitals in England has tripled over the last few weeks, with one in four patients suffering Australian flu. Public Health England has admitted to around 48 flu-related deaths this week, up from 23 the week before. However, official figures demonstrate that Australian flu is unlikely to be the sole cause.

While provisional figures published on 4 January do show an increase in influenza-related hospital admissions, it’s an increase in line with expectations for this winter period. 

Take, for example, the last week of 2017, when there were 421 confirmed influenza cases reported from 19 NHS trust hospitals across England. H3N2, aka “Australian flu”, was responsible for 27 per cent of these cases, while a further 12 per cent were contracted from the H1N1 strain. Another 20 per cent were the result of an unknown subtype of a more common strain of influenza, while the remaining 42 per cent were from a less common strain known influenza ‘B’. Such figures highlight the danger of lumping all flu-related hospitalisation together. 

All the same, it seems that this particular version of the virus has been aggressive internationally. Given the damage wrought by pandemics in the past, such as the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, which killed millions around the globe, it's unsurprising that these numbers, coupled with mildly sensationalist media coverage, has led to alarm bells ringing around the UK.

The best way to counter the virus’ spread is also up for debate. John Oxford, a leading virology expert from Queen Mary University of London, has argued that what could be more dangerous than the virus itself is a lack of funding for the NHS. 

“The problem is there is a lack of investment, there are not enough doctors or nurses,” he said. “Politicians are trying to blame the situation on influenza.”

On the other hand, no politician wants a panicky population jumping to conclusions about their illnesses spreading. It could have widespread effects on society and cause hysteria. Indeed, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon tweeted a briefing from Scotland’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregory Smith today, where he debunked claims that this virus was far more dangerous or had spread more quickly than previous incidences.

Public health officials across the UK have reiterated that the most effective preventative measure is to get the flu jab. The same as every year. 

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology. 

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